As the pace of change in our world accelerates and intensifies, humanity is confronting unprecedented global challenges and uniquely transformative opportunities. Urgent threats in this moment meet long-standing, ever-appalling underlying injustices: the climate crisis, economic inequality, endemic military conflict, the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality, systemic racism, and more. At a deep, primal level, this degree of transformation triggers insecurity regarding our fundamental mortality and our ability to survive. These concerns are so significant, it is no wonder that a permeating sense of unease seems to be growing. As we approach uncertain futures, there are many paths we can take: some encourage greater cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity, while others incite more fear, polarization, scarcity, and competition.
Leaders play an oversized role in giving energy and meaning to the stories and strategies we collectively and individually tell in response. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, and Donald Trump in the US, for example, rose to power with authoritarian agendas, taking advantage of this uncertainty to:
- propagate concerns of moral and physical “purity” as a condition for in-group membership, exacerbating beliefs that some people or groups are less pure and therefore deemed less worthy and even less human
- perpetuate existing prejudices and expand new ones that encourage people to: a) view individuals and groups as threatening “others” and b) continue to alienate, disparage, and oppress them
- use divisive or dehumanizing rhetoric such as describing individuals or groups as pests, using labels like “thugs,” or framing migration as an “invasion”
- scapegoat groups to externalize blame
- call on the public to discriminate against, demean, attack, and/or harm groups and individuals they deem inferior
- use media to share propaganda, spin myths, and boost unsubstantiated theories as “truth”
- suppress all critique and claim that dissenting opinions are unpatriotic
These tactics cause us to deny the full humanity and mutuality in one another—what we call “breaking.” They impact our accepted cultural norms, our ways of participating in society, and our very sense of self. These practices are not just seen in interpersonal interactions, but are embedded in our structures and cultures. When we turn inward and recoil in a fear-driven response, we not only miss opportunities to build new connections, but we weaken existing relationships and networks, destabilize democratic processes and institutions, and disrupt our ability to boldly address the challenges we face today.
This is the time to discern between actions that can instigate more suffering through breaking, and those that can lead to compassion, cohesion, and inclusion through bridging. Breaking causes fractures; bridging creates solidarity. Through the lens of bridging and the examples explored in this paper, we can understand what is required, from an individual to an institutional level, to strengthen practices and principles that offer a path forward to help us realize a world where all belong.
Breaking: Us Vs. Them
Breaking describes the fracture lines we create or maintain when our cultural or social orders propagate a fabricated notion of separateness between individuals and groups. Actions, behaviors, policies, and programs oriented around breaking pit us against one another along lines of difference, such as race, gender, religion, citizenship, education, and political party. Breaking is often rooted in a sense of scarcity and threat. An “other” is identified and separated out or scapegoated, and then made to seem either dangerous or in competition for limited resources, which can be material or symbolic. The apparent threat need not be real for breaking to take hold. Civil society is weakened by these efforts that diminish our trust in one another, loosen social connections, and disrupt our ability to cooperate and compromise, which ultimately threatens democracy itself.
The hard breaking story
Hard breaking creates exclusion through "tribal" belonging that leverages strict in-group membership where access is based on holding a specific, narrow identity and hating non-group members. For millennia, white cis-gender heterosexual males have accumulated disproportionate resources and power through a "dominate and destroy" strategy. The white supremacist/white nationalist resurgence in the past several years is an example of hard breaking on the rise. Today, this group engages in hard breaking tactics like hate crimes, placing migrant children in cages, building walls, and inciting genocide.
One story at the root of this stems from a claim that demographic and social change will facilitate minoritized groups to take over the privileges of the dominant group through a “great replacement.” It has proven appealing to extremist fringe groups as it can be applied effectively in every nation around the world in conjunction with a call to return to the past, such as “Make America Great Again” (Bolsonaro and Modi have similar calls in their respective countries). It is also compelling to more mainstream conservatives and to white lower and middle class people worried about losing their economic and social privileges in the face of growing inequality. Undoubtedly this drives an impulse for high-status groups like white male Christians to protect “what’s theirs.” Anxiety about declining status, for instance, was a greater predictor of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 elections than declining economic status.1
The underlying idea is that the future is fearful and uncertain, so it should be rejected in favor of a past that never really was and certainly will not be. Once the intolerant environment is created and fomented with the aforementioned strategies, it is possible to pursue discriminatory and hateful policies directed at out-groups who are considered less than human. Fear and discontent are channeled into political gains with a vision that is intolerant, exclusionary, and backward-looking, with millions galvanized around it.
Types of breaking
As an institute, we explore this concept on a spectrum that ranges from soft to hard breaking.
- creates hierarchies and believes in inferiority/superiority
- limits participation to certain individuals or groups
- assigns roles with restricted access or opportunities
- leverages segregation as a strategy
- requires “other” individuals/groups to surrender their differences and/or their sovereignty
- denies the full humanity in others and sees them as a problem or threat
- is associated with authoritarianism and ethnic populism
- promotes hatred and disgust of others; proposes violence against them
Bridging: A Bigger We
Recently popularized and evolved by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bridging and its related concepts have been explored across numerous disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, human geography, and theology, as well as through theories of Black feminism, social capital, Buddhism, and cultural Marxism, among others. As a concept, bridging helps us investigate concepts of trust, social cohesion, reciprocity, civic bonds, collaboration, cooperation, communalism, and mutual aid.
Through its unique ability to cross socioeconomic and power differentials, as well as social boundaries, bridging helps us turn outward to form connections and partnerships between dissimilar individuals and groups, while maintaining and growing a greater inner awareness. Bridging thus increases empathy and acceptance of diverse peoples, values, and beliefs while giving us greater access to different parts of ourselves. Building bridges to unite diverse groups can help expand our social networks, revitalize our communities, and establish a more fair and equitable society.2 Bridging reminds us that we are inextricably interconnected and it helps us build a large “we” that does not demand assimilation.
Just as some leaders play an outsized role in exacerbating breaking, others support bridging by:
- promoting principles of inclusion, resilience, cooperation, and mutuality
- prioritizing the well-being of all via practices like targeted universalism3 to address inequalities
- maintaining open dialogue, encouraging debate, addressing critique, and engaging questions via the media or directly with the public
- leading with honesty, compassion, and a long-term vision for well-being
- direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy4
- developing transparent frameworks for decision-making
- encouraging action for the collective good
Covid-19 is revealing our world’s strongest leaders to be those who exemplify the qualities above. For example, the swift leadership of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern helped stop the virus’ spread in her country and temporarily eradicated it entirely. Her strong, compassionate, unifying, and trustworthy approach has reinforced the reputation she earned following the 2019 white supremacist mass shooting attack on a Christchurch mosque. In daily televised briefings and Facebook Live sessions, Ardern urged her “team of five million” to respond through common humanity, solidarity, and interconnectedness, recognizing their responsibility and duty to keep each other healthy. The “we” in Ardern’s circle of human concern includes every New Zealander.
By contrast, other leaders have dismissed or harmed entire populations within their nations, like Brazil’s Bolsonaro whose government has been accused of “flagrant disregard of the epidemiological risk” when entering vulnerable indigenous villages during the pandemic without respecting quarantine protocols.5 Ardern acted decisively and swiftly, provided a clear plan of action and data-driven response frameworks, made meaning for the public through clear messaging about collective responsibility to break the chain of transmission, united the population to protect each other, and engaged in humanizing dialogue through empathetic, transparent communication.6 She demonstrates the power of leaders to surmount unprecedented crises by promoting solidarity and unity through bridging.
Types of Bridging
Below are important concepts to frame our understanding of bridging:
Bridging is not same-ing.
One pitfall of a common liberal response to change is to smooth over difference as though it does not matter, which bypasses needed reparative work caused by the harms of disparate treatment and impact of prejudice and discrimination. This shows up, for example, as:
- Hollow or superficial changes
- Lack of accountability to systemic injustice
Bridging contains multitudes.
Bridging takes countless forms, and though they all link individuals and groups across a chasm of difference, not all bridges are equal. Examples of bridge types:
- Short — long bridges
- Short bridges: a university student in a college town and their elderly neighbor
- Long bridges: an abolitionist and a member of the Trump administration; someone who is gay and someone who is homophobic
- Weak – sturdy bridges:
- Weak bridges: a bridge between a member of the Occupy Movement and members of the Tea Party – this is possible but can be fragile
- Sturdy bridges: 12 members of the Occupy Movement and 12 members of the Tea Party unite toward a shared goal. In order for this, numerous actions would need to occur to reach agreement, making for a strong bridge
- Transactional – transformational bridges:
- Transactional: Coalitions of interest that unite to accomplish a shared goal, like a group of tree farmers and mountain bikers working together to keep nature trails clean and safe. Once the objective is accomplished, the group may dissipate.
- Transformational: A friendship between a former KKK member and a Black person. To form a relationship across this chasm requires healing, deep understanding, a change of mind and heart, an appreciation for one another’s shared humanity, respect, and more.
Transformational bridging creates true belonging.
Given the level of breaking occurring, bridging at a transformational level is needed to respond effectively. The reality is authoritarian movements target our deep, ingrained, automatic fear-driven responses, governed by our amygdala and limbic systems. Transformational bridging can actually help us go toward those same primal aspects of our human nature—but instead, encourage the opposite response. We can work to heal the ways we have been programmed or indoctrinated by systems of power and oppression to find “others” when there were only always allies and kin. Creating transformational bridges can help us carve a path toward mutuality by:
- reaching a deeper, ontological level of our human experience by truly seeing, hearing and respecting someone, and making space for one another requiring attention, not agreement
- altering neuropathways from viewing someone with disgust, revulsion, prejudice, and self-absorption to see the common humanity in their fellow person, and growing toward compassion and care from there
- representing the essence of the South African term “ubuntu,” often translated as “I am because we are,” or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”
- allowing us to co-construct a larger “we” that has space for differences and similarities to co-exist in common humanity
- 1. John Feffer, The Battle for Another World: The Progressive Response to the New Right (Institute for Policy Studies, 2019), https://ips-dc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/The-Battle-for-Another-Wor....
- 2. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
- 3. john a. powell, Stephen Menendian, and Wendy Ake, Targeted Universalism: Policy and Practice (Berkeley, CA: Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, 2019), https://belonging.berkeley.edu/targeteduniversalism.
- 4. Jacqueline Mayfield and Milton Mayfield, “Leadership Communication: Reflecting, Engaging, and Innovating,” International Journal of Business Communication 54, no. 1 (2017): 3–11. doi:10.1177/2329488416675446.
- 5. Scott Wallace, “Disaster looms for indigenous Amazon tribes as COVID-19 cases multiply,” National Geographic, June 12, 2020.
- 6. Uri Friedman, “New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet,” The Atlantic, April 19, 2020.